The U.S. Army is not short of commitments; an ongoing war in Afghanistan, troops still engaged in New Dawn in Iraq, worries over the volatility of North Korea and a Chinese defense budget with a recent tendency to climb steeply with every passing year. In fact, U.S. forces operate in around 80 countries. But there was concern among those attending this year’s AUSA Aviation Symposium and Exposition in Washington, DC that substantially cutting the Army’s budget at this point in time would be contradictory to the nation’s requirements. Although the helicopter has finally come into the spotlight as a mission-critical system in support of the soldier on the ground, all is not as well as it may appear to be.
Army Aviation still has a share of the annual Army budget in excess of its size. Col. William Morris, director of Army Aviation at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff (G3/5/7), said during the first day of AUSA that the Aviation Branch accounts for seven percent of the Army, while his colleague, Col. Randolph Rotte, Army Aviation Division Chief, said later that aviation was still benefiting from more than 20 percent of the total Army budget.
BG William Crosby, PEO Aviation, wrapping up the first day’s sessions, said that his remit was to caretake the $7.06 billion that Army Aviation has. However, to a great extent the health of Army Aviation is due in no small measure to the cancellation of the Comanche program several years ago. We are passed that and worries are surfacing about where aviation will be post-2025.
Many may deride the idea that such an outwardly healthy branch of the Army could indulge itself in such long-term concerns. But as Crosby stated, “the only new thing I am buying is UAVs.” What he meant was that composition of the current fleet has been reliant on the upgrading and modification of many well-proven platforms, but that the design of these will make them redundant in the face of new technology available in the post-2025 world. The much-lauded CH-47F is based on a 70-year-old design. The rest of the battle-hardened mainstays used by today’s warfighters fair little better—the UH-60, AH-64 and OH-58 were all designed around half a century ago. The money has been spent on sustaining and upgrading old designs—with much success, it should be acknowledged. The exception is the UH-72A Lakota, albeit on off-the-shelf procurement of an existing design (EC145).
But the fact is that a bow wave of complacency and comfort has resulted in a lack of investment in Science and Technology (S&T) that should be leading the way toward next generation aircraft. Crosby criticised the existing S&T budget—a mere $107 million out of $7.06 billion (or a little over 1.5 percent of the whole budget)—calling it a ‘pittance’. Individual companies are making progress through their own funding, he noted: Sikorsky with its X2 (now being developed into the Raider program with the Armed Aerial Scout requirement in mind) and Piasecki’s X49A Speed Hawk vectored thrust ducted propeller (VTDP) compound helicopter program, which aims to demonstrate potential improvements in speed (200-plus kts), range, survivability and reliability. Last year Eurocopter entered this speed arena with its X3 demonstrator. Crosby said that the future lies in high-speed (greater than 170 kts), fly-by-wire, composites and signature reductions. “We have to invest in our future” he said.
But the onus has turned towards fiscal responsibility. MG Mark Brown, Deputy for Acquisition & Systems management, spoke about the requirement to achieve a two-to-three percent net annual growth in warfighting capabilities without a commensurate budget increase. Brown said that the task had been outlined in 2010 by Army Secretary John McHugh: “We need an agile system that rapidly develops, purchases, and fields innovative solutions for our soldiers without breaking our commitment to be good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.”
To this end, Ellis Golson, Director of Capabilities for Acquisition & System Management, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics & Technology) said that although the UAS ‘genie was out of the bottle,’ it didn’t automatically mean that capabilities such as a vertical takeoff/landing (VTOL) UAS had to be the immediate way forward. He too talked about cost-effectiveness but iterated one of the ongoing challenges of acquisition—“how to establish set requirements when technology changes so fast.” He delivered a cold reminder about the pace of the acquisition system, saying that it was likely that it would take seven years between the Milestone A on the acquisition of the proposed AAS to the fielding of the first aircraft. However, it is this length of time that concerns Crosby today.
“Recently completed analysis indicates the need for a new generation of vertical lift platforms to start being fielded in the 2025 timeframe.”
The question remains: how do you do that on an S&T budget of $107 million?